The Washington Post

Unemployment extension bill debate begins again

A recruiter takes a resumé during a job fair on June 23, 2014 . The number of people seeking unemployment benefits has fallen 10 percent since the first week of January. (Matt Rourke/AP)

It’s been a rough 18 months on Capitol Hill — budget sequestration, a debt ceiling battle, various contentious committee investigations, gridlock over bills both sides consider vital.

But the past year and a half has been much worse for Imari Ridley-Daniels.

First, Ridley-Daniels, 28, lost her job as an administrative assistant at a Maryland funeral home. Unable to pay her car note, she lost her vehicle. For the first few months, she used state unemployment to cover basic costs for her and her 4-year-old daughter, who is autistic.

Eventually the two moved into Ridley-Daniels’s mother’s home, in part to save money but also to care for her mother, who had cancer. After her mother died on Christmas Day, Ridley-Daniels and her daughter moved into a small, barely furnished apartment in a scrappy red brick building in Oxon Hill, Md. Family members have chipped in with money and child care, and Ridley-Daniels — now on food stamps — sends out dozens of résumés and job applications each day.

“It’s just really draining emotionally to not be able to provide for your child,” Ridley-Daniels said during an interview last week, during which she flashed her bright smile to mask the fact that she was often fighting tears. “It just makes you feel like the scum of the earth.”

Ridley-Daniels is one of the 3.1 million Americans who would have been eligible for federal long-term jobless benefits — given to those who have exhausted their state unemployment — had Congress not allowed the program to expire last December.

Under the federal unemployment system, someone who loses a job typically receives unemployment benefits from the state for 26 weeks. But in 2008, Congress voted to provide additional aid that made checks available for as long as 99 weeks in the hardest-hit states. Last year, lawmakers cut the maximum benefit to 73 weeks. Then, at the end of December, Congress let federal aid lapse altogether.

Sens. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.), who hail from the states with the highest unemployment rates in the nation, have led the push to renew the federal benefits, and on Tuesday they introduced a new bill to fund the program for five months.

The new legislation is a significant revision to the Reed/Heller bill that passed in the Senate earlier this year but was never brought up for a vote by the House GOP leadership.

It does not include retroactive payments for jobless Americans who stopped receiving emergency unemployment insurance when the federal program expired in December, a major component of the previous bill.

The new legislation would allow any jobless American whose federal aid was cut off in December to receive unemployment insurance payments for as many weeks as they had remaining of eligibility when the benefits ceased.

“This means the benefits will be available going forward for the long-term unemployed, and those that were cut off when the program expired will be able to pick up where they left off,” Reed said in a statement provided to The Washington Post on Friday. “So, for instance, if you were eligible for 6 more weeks of EUC benefits when the program was cut off on December 28, and you are still looking for a job now, you are eligible to receive federal UI help for those 6 weeks. Our goal is to try to help those out of work get the help they need.”

It remains to be seen if the Reed/Heller bill will be able to attract the bipartisan support needed to be enacted.

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) vowed this month to put the bill on the floor if Heller can round up enough Republican votes to guarantee that it could again clear the 60-vote threshold in the Senate.

“Anytime Senator Heller makes a little progress on this, we’ll bring it back [up for a vote in the Senate],” Reid told reporters this month. “Because people are just as desperate today as they were two months ago.”

The senators were able to persuade several Republicans to vote with them on their last bill but were not able to get the House GOP leadership — which has consistently said that it will not call a vote on a bill that does not include job-creation measures — to buy in.

Under the new legislation, the cost of the restored benefits would be paid for through offsets that include extending “pension smoothing” provisions from the 2012 highway bill (MAP-21), which were set to phase out this year, and extending Customs user fees through 2024.

Both pension smoothing and extending Customs user fees have been proposed before and have not been supported by House Republicans in the past, and several congressional aides on both sides of the aisle said they believe the current bill may face an uphill battle.

“There is a commitment from the Democrats in the House to not let this fall off of the table,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who has been helping lead “Witness Wednesdays,” a series of weekly Capitol Hill events in which members of Congress, faith leaders and others read the stories of those who are long-term unemployed.

“This is about families,” Schakowsky said. “And the stories are devastating.”

For those like Ridley-Daniels — who has taken to watching C-SPAN to see if a deal is reached — the hope is not only that Reed and Heller can finally broker a deal but that they can do it before the money runs out.

“It feels like no one cares,” Ridley-Daniels said. “People like me need help. We really want to work.”

Wesley Lowery is a national reporter covering law enforcement and justice for the Washington Post. He previously covered Congress and national politics.

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